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Prime-time hick



President Bush, great news! The dumbing down of America apparently has reached full flower — and it smells like stinkweed.

The new series My Name is Earl, NBC’s Great White Comedic Hope, exploded on the fall lineup like a cherry bomb up a bunny’s butt. In its tent pole position of 9 p.m. Tuesdays, coupled with the consistently reliable Law & Order: SVU at 10, the white-trash sitcom Earl has helped NBC win the night in the early ratings wars, something the once-proud Peacock Network doesn’t do much anymore.

TV critics, seldom given to hyperbole, are positively blathering over this show. Detroit Free Press crit Mike Duffy proclaimed it a “gen-u-wine, fresh-squeezed screwball pearl.” A scribe at the Seattle Times actually gushed, “If any show can single-handedly turn around NBC this fall, it’s My Name is Earl.”

And somewhere the red states are bubbling, “Finally, a series made just for us.”

Am I missing something here?

It’s reasonable to assume that Earl, starring the customarily likable Jason Lee, might never have made fall’s final cut if NBC weren’t A) desperate for a fresh hit and B) the target of jokes every night from its own late-night hero, Jay Leno. The network claims Earl’s pilot episode tested better with preview audiences than any they’ve had in 15 years, yet they promoted the bejeezus out of this sucker over the summer. Frankly, it’s pitiful to see the network of Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends plummet so far beneath its formerly lofty standards. (None of those comedy classics, it should be noted, was launched with half as much hype and hoopla.) Critics adore Earl — a lying, cheating, no-account reprobate hick — but critics tend to grow up and work in major urban areas. They don’t see people like Earl very often, so he’s a novelty to them.

I was reared in small-town western Michigan, and I know Earl very well. He’s the guy you’d walk across the street to avoid. He’s the guy who’ll steal your car, the one who’ll get all likkered up with his buddies and want to burn a cross on your family’s front lawn for practice.

This is the guy we’re about to hail as TV’s new folk hero?

Trying to atone for his many past misdeeds, Earl creates a list of everyone he’s wronged and sets out to “cross them off” by making amends. In last week’s episode alone, we see Earl rob a store, pin the crime on one of his friends, get the friend sent to prison for a two-year bit, duct tape an elderly woman to a chair and get beaten repeatedly with a Bible. Oh, the laughs never end.

Not to say the show doesn’t have its moments — but they are moments only, not memorable, sustaining comedic experiences. Nor is Earl the illegitimate heir to such bygone series as All in the Family, Roseanne or Married ... With Children. Those shows were cloaked in the framework of the dysfunctional family, and while they often went over the top, there were still themes and scenes we could relate to and a lesson learned before the half-hour ended.

Even The Dukes of Hazzard was little more than a Southern-fried cartoon, a foreshadowing of NASCAR’s rallying cry to good ol’ boys everywhere. I’m still looking for the redemptive quality in My Name Is Earl; there’s something darker about Earl and potentially quite disturbing.

But wait — like the commercial says, there’s more: Blue Collar TV, at 9 p.m. Sundays on the WB, is a modest hit, a MAD TV for the lowbrow set if such a thing is possible. Starring Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy — each an estimable comedian with a strong rural fan base — this sketch-com series is frequently funny but painfully sophomoric: fart jokes and ga-ga baby humor. Yet the series is proving so successful for WB that the network allows the trio to tape its shows in Atlanta rather than on one of the coasts. No one’s had that much network pull in the South since Andy Griffith and Matlock.

We’re seeing the rise of the redneck intelligensia. If this trend continues, Dubya, you may be able to convince America that you’re good for a third term.

Emmy Says Yes to “S.”: For one charming, disarming moment last month, S. Epatha Merkerson laid claim to the most talked-about cleavage in Hollywood. Take that, Pam Anderson.

At this year’s Emmys, Merkerson, a 1976 Wayne State grad and Saginaw native, captured the golden figurine for Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her portrayal of Rachel “Nanny” Crosby in the HBO original production Lackawanna Blues — written and produced by fellow Wayne State alum Ruben Santiago-Hudson — besting the likes of Halle Berry, Debra Winger and Sex in the City’s Cynthia Nixon in the process. So unprepared was she for victory that Merkerson had tucked her acceptance speech into her décolletage and spent her entire time onstage searching her gown for the notes.

It was one of those genuine, endearing scenes that makes TV’s endless stream of awards shows occasionally worth watching. Merkerson, best known as Lt. Anita Van Buren on the Law & Order flagship since 1993, is now the longest-running African-American actor on a prime-time network series. (The “S.,” by the way, stands for Sharon; go figure.) It was also one time that Emmy got it exactly right.

Jim McFarlin writes about television for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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